Friday, April 24, 2009

Neko Case -- Middle Cyclone

Neko Case -- Middle Cyclone (Anti)

While a few folks are commenting that Neko Case is straying further from her country roots, I think that this new album is just more evidence that Case has become a genre unto herself. To call the music on this album a move towards the so-called Adult Alternative sound is meaningless, and represents a failure to appreciate what a special talent Case is.

Maybe it’s because her voice always announces itself and draws away attention from Neko’s amazing songwriting. Her country roots are still at the center of her songs, along with gospel and other traditional American music. Case has found a way to add layers of atmosphere to what is generally very direct and plainspoken music. So her tales of nature, broken hearts and dreams alive or soon to be crushed float and dart and soar, yet remain grounded and tangible.

She can ably move from the twanging of a guitar that could come from a Morricone soundtrack or a David Lynch movie, as on “Prison Girls”, to the Spector-ian grandeur underpinning “I’m an Animal”, to the jangle pop perfection of “People Got a Lot of Nerve”.

“Nerve” is one of Case’s most accessible concoctions. The inviting beds of guitars support Case’s evocative lyrics, and the indelible chorus: “I’m a man-man-man eater/still you’re surprised, surprised, surprised/when I eat ya.” Somewhere there’s a universe where this is a quirky left field hit. After the second chorus, Case’s voice swoops up and the music swoops along to an end that comes a bit too soon, with music so enthralling.

Case’s melodies are broad and allow her to show her vocal power without showing off. And the music is always spacious enough to support and drive her. This is illustrated on the opener, “This Tornado Loves You”, where the rhythm lopes along like an old Glen Campbell number. There are spots where the music slows down to let a bit of drama build, before the song goes back into its natural canter.

This album is cohesive and demands repeat plays. But there are standouts beyond “People Got a Lot of Nerve”. “The Pharaohs” begins with plaintive guitar picking, and soon thereafter, Case tells a tale of a mysterious relationship where a husband is distant from his young bride. Case fills this song with memorable phrases, such as “I want the pharaohs/but there’s only men”. Like a lot of Case’s material, the words don’t tell an obvious story, but they are evocative and allow a listener to fill in the blanks.

I’d be remiss not to mention her cover of Sparks’ “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth”. Case doesn’t mess with the melody or the basic arrangement. Instead, she adapts that to her own style, with sumptuous strings and multi-tracked vocals burnishing this fantastic Ron Mael composition. If anything, she may make the song a bit more foreboding than Russell Mael ever could.

The only thing that may be keeping Case from full scale popularity is that her music, despite the familiar foundations, is built on abstractions. As a result, she may never have one song that becomes her gateway to a much larger audience. Well, that’s the much larger audience’s loss. I wonder if someday someone will have the stones to begin covering these songs. Yes, Case’s voice makes them so great, but it’s not just the voice -- Neko is a true artist.

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